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South Sudan Allies with Major Northern Opposition Leader

South Sudan's ruling party has signed a political alliance with the former prime minister of Sudan, who was ousted by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir 20 years ago. The agreement with the northern opposition party sets the stage for an electoral showdown next year between Khartoum and the South.

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the northern opposition party Umma signed the agreement Saturday following a multi-day visit by the former prime minister and opposition party leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi.

The accord brings the two parties together on a variety of issues, including the importance of free national elections next year and a fair Southern independence referendum in 2011. The two parties also agreed on an agenda of making national unity look attractive preceding the 2011 vote.

Al-Mahdi told VOA the time had come to make arrangements for peaceful co-existence should the South decide to secede.

"We think its time to begin to discuss the possibilities of separation and an independent South, so that we are prepared for the eventuality," said al-Mahdi.

The Oxford-educated politician was Sudan's last democratically elected head of state, but he was ousted just three years later in a 1989 coup by Mr. Bashir. Viewed as politically weak by his opponents, the prime minister had been moving towards a compromise with the South to end the civil war before he lost control.

The former Sudanese leader has been steadily widening his political alliances during the past few months. He signed a similar agreement in July with a Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. He has been leading efforts among northern opposition parties to coordinate political activities pressuring Khartoum for legal liberties prior to the elections.

Al-Mahdi said talks of a unified front between his party and SPLM in the 2010 elections is premature. A meeting next week in Juba will bring in a wider number of opposition parties to discuss the possibilities of a collective strategy in the elections.

He made clear he regarded the ties between the current government partners, SPLM and the North's National Congress Party, as effectively extinguished.

"The relationship between the two signatories of the agreement, the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement], have fallen out, and they are not talking now [of] any kind of conciliatory language, but [it is] almost a kind of cold war," said al-Mahdi.

The South has accused Khartoum of arming troublesome militant groups in southern Sudan, and the two parties are at a standstill over disagreements on the details of the 2011 referendum.

Reports have indicated President Bashir is hoping to leverage disagreements over the vote into a compromise which would require SPLM to support Mr. Bashir's candidacy in the 2010 elections in exchange for concessions over the referendum bill.